Recently you had a chance to ask animal behavior expert and autism advocate Dr. Temple Grandin a question. Below you'll find her answers about factory farming, animal behavior, and living with autism.genesis of autism?
Do you follow any theories on the genesis of autism, and if so, do you prefer any in particular?
Grandin: Autism has a strong genetic basis. It has complex genetics. A little bit of the autism trait may provide an advantage such as math or art skills. Too much of the autism trait creates a severe handicap. It is like a music mixing board. There is no black and white dividing line between normal and abnormal.
ABA Behavior Therapy
Dr. Grandin, thank you for taking the time to review these topics with us. My question is regarding Applied Behavior Analysis therapy for children diagnosed with autism: what is your opinion of the benefits of these techniques?
Grandin: ABA is a good program to get language started in very young children under age five. Other intensive therapies that involve one-to-one teaching are also effective. The best ABA programs have a flexible approach.
High Function vs Low function
I understand that the words High Functioning and Low Functioning get thrown around a lot. These terms were designed to reflect the level of support the Autistic person needed. Some people claim that the difference between high and low functioning Autism is merely intelligence. Others claim that it is a matter of how severe the Autism is, not the intelligence of the person. What do you believe is the difference between a high functioning Autistic person and a low functioning Autistic person.
Grandin: The terms high and low functioning autism are not well defined. Since the new DSM5 has merged Asperger and autism together, ASD has become a huge spectrum ranging from Einstein, who had no language at age three to an adult who has difficulty with daily living skills and never develops speech.
A label of high or low functioning should never be used on young children. Some four-year-olds may look really bad, but with intensive therapy develop good skills. When I was four, I had no speech and looked really severe. Intensive therapy can improve functioning level.
by Jason Levine
First of all, thanks for all your work for people on the spectrum. I'm the parent of a child on the autism spectrum (High Functioning/Asperger's). When we got our son's diagnosis and I was reading up on Autism, I began to realize that these books were describing me also. Suddenly, all the things in my life that seems to set me apart from everyone else made sense. Now, I identify myself as undiagnosed Asperger's. I've considered getting a diagnosis but held back for various reasons (financial constraints, thinking my diagnosis wouldn't help my son, thinking that my diagnosis wouldn't help me). Sometimes, though, it feel like not getting the diagnosis sets me apart and casts doubt on whether I really have autism or not. Would you recommend that adults who think they are on the spectrum get a diagnosis? If so, do you have any recommendations for how to proceed with this?
Grandin: You do not need a formal diagnosis when you are mainly interested in gaining insight about yourself. Autism diagnosis is a behavioral profile. You can read the DSM 5 and it is easy to diagnose yourself. There is no definitive medical test for autism. My book The Autistic Brain explains the history of the diagnosis. Doctors keep making changes in diagnostic criteria. Autism varies from severe to just a few mild traits with completely normal speech. Autism diagnostic standards are based half on science and half on a committee of doctors having arguments in conference rooms at American Psychiatric Association meetings. As individuals age and gain experiences, they may lose some autistic traits.
Frequency of Autism
Is there an actual increase in the frequency of autism, more awareness (diagnosis), changing definitions, or something else that explains the [presumed] increase in number of children with autism?
Grandin: On the fully verbal end of the spectrum, I think some of the increased incidence of autism is increased diagnosis. To receive special education services at school, many states require a diagnostic label. I went to college with geeky students who would be diagnosed with autism or Asperger’s today. Both my geeky classmates and myself benefited from 1950’s methods of parenting, where social skills were taught in a more structured way.
Coping skills progression & success
As you've gained success professionally, how have your coping skills had to change? Is it harder or easier now to deal with the stresses of a very public life vs. when you were a relatively anonymous student? Do we have a model yet for the progression of adaptive skills development for people with autism, or is it highly variable at the individual level?
Grandin: The more experiences you have the better you learn to cope because you have more data in your database. You must get out and do things.
It seems like finding people with autism to act as advocates and leaders would be difficult; to the point you're probably the only well known person in that role. Do you have a community of peers with autism who help you advocate, or is much of your support from neurotypical people? Is this even a problem the autistic community faces?
Grandin: I have worked with many people in the world of science, cattle or construction trades that have autism. Most of them were never formally diagnosed. At autism meetings, I am finding more and more cases where one of the parents gets diagnosed with autism after their child is diagnosed.
Difference between human and animal cognition
Your work improving slaughterhouses essentially involved empathizing with the animals and understanding the factors that were causing them excessive stress.
Why do you think most people have so much trouble doing this? Is it just experience, ie we don't realize a certain rake is making the cattle nervous because we haven't lived the life of a cow. Or do you think there's something fundamentally different about the cognition of different animals that makes them respond in ways that humans have trouble relating to?
Grandin: Animals do not have verbal language. Their thoughts would be sensory based, not word based. My book Animals in Translation will provide further insights. On www.grandin.com I have an article entitled, “Thinking Like Animals.” Being a visual thinker helped me in my work with animals because I can think in pictures instead of words.
Technology and livestock handling
In 2014 you wrote: "I have emphasized the importance of removing distractions that cause balking from cattle handling facilities."
How has technology been employed to automatically detect and either alert or mitigate potential distraction situations? For example, using sensors to alert when external sound and motion levels become an issue or when livestock shows above normal signs of stress. Another example might be the tailored use of CAD to design facilities that take into account "other common distractions [such as] reflections on shining metal or wet floors. In indoor facilities, a ceiling light to eliminate a reflection will improve animal movement."
Grandin: There is a much simpler way to remove distractions. Walk through the chutes and you will see them. I have found that adding or moving a lamp will often eliminate distractions. Cattle and pigs are very sensitive to reflections. Some common distractions are parked vehicles, dangling chains, hose on the floor, or a coat on a fence.
Dr. Grandin: Over the course of your career you have seen (and promoted) many changes in the humane treatment of livestock. However, over that same time period you've witnessed the decline of small family farms in favor of large-scale industrial farming with it's focus on economic efficiency. Overall, do you believe farm animals are better or worse off now?
Grandin: There is starting to be a resurgence in people getting into starting small farms to provide farmer’s markets, restaurants, and chefs. The most important factor that determines how animals are treated is the attitude of management.
I have seen large industrial-sized farms with good management and high animal welfare. I have also been on badly managed larger farms. The same principle also applies to small farms. They can be either good or bad. It depends on the management.
Businesses and Autism
by Da Cheez
What actions or concessions should businesses take, on a social and practical scale, to help integrate and utilize those with autism, especially those with a particular gifting and working environment needs?
- A quiet place to work
- Clear instruction about tasks. Vagueness does not work.
- No sudden surprises at the work place.
- Written instructions for work that requires a sequence of tasks. Provide a “pilot’s checklist.”
- Correct social mistakes in a clear, calm, direct manner. Hints do not work.